Pop quiz - what do these three songs have in common: Nas' "Made You Look," Missy Elliott's "We Run This," and Amy Winehouse's "In My Bed"? If your answer was that they are all built on a sample of "Apache," a 1973 recording by the Incredible Bongo Band, then consider yourself a true hip-hop aficionado.
Dan Forrer's new documentary Sample This relates the unlikely story of how this track from a commercially unsuccessful album eventually became one of the essential building blocks of rap music's creation in the South Bronx in the 1970's. In its form, Sample This is as standard and staid as they come: narration (by Gene Simmons of KISS, of all people), talking heads, archival footage, etc. But in this case, the story it tells is so fascinating and full of such interesting diversions and twists, it ultimately matters little that the documentary filmmaking wheel isn't exactly reinvented here.
As presented here, the story of "Apache" begins with the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, an event that greatly impacted the life of a young man named Michael Viner, a Washington D.C. native who worked on Kennedy's campaign. After leaving politics, Viner concentrated on music, his other life-long interest. Though he had no talent whatsoever at playing an instrument, he proved to be a savvy businessman and marketer. His success in releasing The Best of Marcel Marceau - a novelty record by the famous mime that consisted of silence followed by audience applause at the end - landed him a production deal at MGM Records.
The birth of The Incredible Bongo Band was as unlikely as anything else in this story. Viner was hired as the music supervisor for the 1972 cult film The Thing with Two Heads, which starred Ray Milland as a dying racist whose life was saved by having his head grafted onto the body of a black man, played by football legend Rosey Grier. Grier, incidentally, had also worked on Robert F. Kennedy's campaign, though the two had never met before this film.
For one track on the album, "Bongo Rock," Viner assembled some of the top studio musicians in L.A. to create this instrumental. As one of them says in the film, "They're the people you always heard, but never heard of." These were session musicians who backed some of the top musical acts of the 60's and 70's - from the Mamas and the Papas to the Monkees, from Bob Dylan to The Doors. As the title indicates, "Bongo Rock," as well as most of the tracks on the two studio albums the Incredible Bongo Band would eventually record, was built around drums and percussion instruments. Two key contributors to the band's recordings were bongo player King Errisson and Jim Gordon, generally acknowledged as one of rock's greatest drummers, who had recently been a member of Eric Clapton's band Derek and the Dominos. (Gordon composed the celebrated piano coda to "Layla.")
"Bongo Rock" was a minor hit in the U.S., but a much more sizeable one in Canada. So subsequently in 1973, Viner went to Vancouver to record the Incredible Bongo Band's first full-length album, also called Bongo Rock, using local musicians to augment the U.S.-based players. The Incredible Bongo Band was never really a "band" in the sense of having a stable set of members, but was instead an ad hoc collective of revolving musicians. It's even rumored that Ringo Starr, who dropped by some sessions, also played on the album, but this has never been confirmed. When it came time to perform these songs live, with some musicians who played on the recordings unable or unwilling to commit to a touring schedule, other musicians were hired as replacements.
Which brings us to track number two on Bongo Rock, the iconic song "Apache." This song was originally composed by British songwriter Jerry Lordan, and inspired by the 1954 American western film of the same name. "Apache" was originally a hit for the British group The Shadows in 1960, and was recorded many times by other artists before the Incredible Bongo Band laid down their version. "Apache" and Bongo Rock, as well as their second album, 1974's Return of the Incredible Bongo Band, made little impact upon release, barely making a dent on the pop charts.
"Apache" was rescued from obscurity a few years later, when it was discovered by pioneering hip-hop DJs such as Kool Herc, Grandmaster Flash, and Afrika Bambaataa, who adopted it as a staple of their outdoor dance parties in the Bronx. The instrumental break in the middle of "Apache," most likely performed by Jim Gordon, became the most common part of this recording to be sampled. It was among the records cut together in Grandmaster Flash's seminal track "The Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel." "Apache" proved to be an incredibly versatile track, with all of its parts a fruitful source for samples. The Sugarhill Gang had a significant hit with their version in the early 80's, and since then it has become one of the most ubiquitous samples of hip hop, used by many artists up until the present day.
Sample This does well in documenting the many fascinating characters and side stories involved in the creation of this music, which encompasses such incidents as one band member's brief involvement with the Manson family, and the tragic tale of Jim Gordon, finally done in by the twin demons of drug addiction and mental illness. The surviving members of the Incredible Bongo Band are extensively interviewed, as well as other commentators such as Questlove of the Roots, Afrika Bambaataa, Melle Mel, Jerry Butler, and many others. The only person who seems out of place here is the narrator and occasional talking head Gene Simmons. We learn late in the film (spoiler alert, I guess) that Simmons was a personal friend of Michael Viner, which would explain his involvement. One still feels, however, that it would have made more sense to have someone like Questlove, who has an actual connection to the musical genre that "Apache" has become associated with, to tell this story. Still, Sample This proves to be quite an informative and entertaining music documentary.
Sample This is in theaters now and also available on VOD. For more information, visit the film's website.